Yuval Noah Harari is a British- Israeli Historian and Author, and a Graduate of Oxford University. Sapiens is the first in a series of his books on the past, present and the future of humankind and has been read and recommended by the likes of Barrack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. I read the book twice in one month just to fully wrap my head around the sheer time scale it covers.
Sapiens is an all-encompassing account of the rise of our species Homo sapiens from an insignificant tree-dwelling ape 2.5 million years ago to now the undisputed ruler of the planet. The book walks the reader through a very large swathe of time, trying to zoom out and provide the big picture perspective of who we are, where we came from and where we’re headed; all the while tracing the origins and evolution of our thoughts, emotions, instincts, behaviors, social structures, political organizations and our religious creeds. Harari uses all the disciplines at his disposal to construct a multi-dimensional narration of the human story – using history, biology, anthropology, archaeology, and evolutionary psychology to explain everything from our minute individual quirks to our collective attitudes and behaviors. The book is broadly divided into four parts – Cognitive Revolution, Agricultural Revolution, the Unification of Mankind and the Scientific Revolution – each described as a monumental leap forward for humankind in its rise to global dominance.
The human story begins in the woods of East Africa. Sapiens started off as just one of many human species, wandering and foraging for food, locked in an everyday struggle for mere survival against an unforgiving nature for tens of thousands of years. Sapiens were subject to the same laws of evolution and natural selection that had spared no species unable to adapt and survive, and for long we remained an ‘insignificant ape’ in the middle of the food chain. It was only 70,000 ago that the flood gates to human cognition, imagination and creativity opened, and in a few millennia transformed the species into the king of the ecosystem. This new wit and power, came at the peril of large animal species the world over, including fellow human species who were wiped out one after another by this frail yet cunning ape, armed with flint stones, spears and the power to cooperate en masse. This ‘Cognitive Revolution’ over at least 50 millennia allowed Sapiens to tame nature and make it subservient to its needs. We created agriculture, permanent settlements and empires to help us sustain and expand our populations – finally breaking free of the dictates of nature that had kept us in our place for many millennia. We heralded in more revolutionary changes to our environment and our organization that exalted us to the top of the food chain and allowed us to spread across the planet.
But the story of the rise of Sapiens is a bloody one. We left calamities, mass extinctions and ravaged ecosystems as our footprint everywhere we went. We murdered and plundered our fellow man in the name of money, power and God. Despite our gargantuan leaps forward, the human condition was still replete with grave injustices, our history marred with tyranny, bloodshed and exploitation, and our cognition held hostage to centuries old myths and superstitions that ruled our everyday individual and collective lives. It was only 500 years ago that a new horizon dawned on human civilization, when it decided to break free the chains of dogma and dare venture out into the world in quest of empirical knowledge. This was the Scientific Revolution, which over 5 centuries fueled by expanding European imperialists in search of lands to colonize and greedy capitalists looking for newer and bigger markets, spread and changed the world beyond whatever someone just a few hundred years prior could fathom.
But have these changes brought about a happier Sapiens? What use are all our leaps and revolutions and if unable to stave off misery and discontent? These are some of the most important questions one can ask of history, yet are seldom addressed by most modern day historians. Yuval Noah Harari breaks this pattern and introduces a more personal – a more human element to the study of history; at least asking, if not answering some of the most pressing questions a modern man has about his existence, his identity and his place in the world. Not just that, Harari has boldly questioned and provoked every dominant political, economic and religious creed we believe in today – from our ideas of constitutional democracy and human rights, our belief in capitalism and economic growth, to our most sacred of theologies and religious ideas that billions today hold beyond doubt and question. The book digs into the historical origins of our beliefs and reveals the tenets that under-gird our modern notions in a liberalized world. Sapiens left me with every one of my core beliefs challenged, and stimulated newer modes of thought I had not accessed before.
The book is a great introductory read into the rise of our species, and Harari’s simple and conversational writing style made it all the much easier to follow along. There were however some parts that left me scratching my head and just didn’t feel consistent with the rest of the book. It is evident that Harari has a solid grasp on history and has the ability to make interesting comparisons across time that not many others can. But he isn’t a biologist, philosopher or a theologian, and in many sections of the book his attempts at viewing history through crude scientific positivism left much to be desired. It resulted in things like a cold translation of the American Declaration of Independence into biological terms on page 123, and some absurd biological determinism through the rest of part 2 where he talks about human sexual behavior and the rise of the patriarchy, not shedding enough light on the cultural, psychological and religious contributions that influenced human behavior and organization. His comparisons between traditional masculinity or femininity as being social constructs on page 170, and later on page 174 describing aggressive and violent tendencies as more a trademark of men than women with roots in biology also felt incongruent.
Nonetheless, Sapiens was an incredibly enjoyable and stimulating read and I’d love to hear more diverse opinions from anyone else who’s read it. I’d give this book an 8/10 and you definitely can’t go wrong with picking this up and reading it as I finally did in this quarantine!